Tilman Robinson: Network of Lines
Listen/Hear Collective

Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveller is such an incredibly rich novel, it's astonishing that no one before Tilman Robinson has thought to draw upon it for musical inspiration. Given that the book's a dizzying post-modern novel whose chapters collectively constitute a fictional hall of mirrors, it wouldn't have been all that surprising had Robinson decided to mimic its post-modern style with a collage-styled work. But on his debut album, the Melbourne-based composer and trombonist adopts a less obvious approach, one that might at first seem a tad more traditional and less audacious but is ultimately perfectly satisfying. For the recording, Robinson, who has composed music for a number of jazz and classical ensembles and has shared the stage with artists such as The Bang On a Can All Stars, John Hollenbeck, Dave Douglas, and Myra Melford, assembled a splendid electroacoustic nonet to render the material into physical form.

The recording's track titles correspond to the individual chapter titles in Calvino's 1979 work, but aside from that Robinson isn't overly literal in his interpretive approach and allows his sensibility free reign. Formally speaking, Network of Lines is an electroacoustic work, given that two of the players, Robinson himself and trumpeter Peter Knight, are also credited with laptop contributions. But, in truth, electronics are generally used more as subtle colour and texture, fairy dust sprinkled across a given track's surfaces or a swarm threatening to envelop the instruments (see “Lines: Intersecting”). Instrumentally, the group features three horn players (trombone and trumpets), strings (violin and cello), a guitarist (banjoist also), pianist, bassist, and drummer. The timbral contrasts between the strings, banjo, and horns make for a richly rewarding listening experience, and the players are granted moments to individually shine—though that's hardly the project's primary agenda. Network of Lines is not intended to function as a solo vehicle for Robinson the trombonist either, as the composer in this case participates more as ensemble member than frontman.

Alternately declamatory and ponderous, the music knows few if any borders. The opening track, “Winter's Night,” derives some measure of its insistence from Latin music, while the subsequent “Malbork, Cimmeria” is even more overt in its rhythmic emphasis, with klezmer drawn upon as an apparent source. There are dirges (“Shadows Gather”) jazz fusion-styled episodes (“Lines: Enlacing,” which at times suggests some collaboration between Jean-Luc Ponty and Steve Reich), and the music also wades into improv territory in a few places, the work's through-composed structure designed elastically so as to accommodate free playing. Moments arise within “In Search of an Anchor” when Robinson's dramatic music reminds me of nothing less than Carla Bley's Social Studies, an album that, like Robinson's, exploits the resources offered by a large ensemble and features compositions of imagination and originality. A multi-coloured and exploratory mosaic, Network of Lines amounts to an uninterrupted, ten-part travelogue whose fifty-three minutes honour Calvino's memory in fine manner.

February 2014